This exciting historical novel, clearly written and well-paced, is set in the city of Valencia at the end of the 15th century. Real events and persons are mixed with fictional counterparts in the story: the community of Jewish converts in Valencia and its greatest threat, the Grand Inquisitor of the Kingdom, faithful and rigorous upholder of Catholic orthodoxy; the local nobility, primarily interested in power, but also in art and literature.
And in the center of it all, a book, a Bible translated into a vernacular language. If the Inquisition relentlessly pursues this book and its possessors, whom it intends to burn at the stake, they in turn, risk their own lives to protect the work.
After the edict of expulsion ordered by the Catholic Kings in 1492, life became complicated and very dangerous for Jewish and Moorish converts (moriscos) in Spanish territories. Many practiced their religion and maintained their customs in secret, constantly in fear of being discovered, but also hoping for a better life, perhaps in lands not held by the Crown. These attitudes were considered extremely dangerous deviations from the true Catholic faith by the Holy Office of the Inquisition, whose religious fanaticism proved to be implacable, always in search of any sign of waywardness to impose, by means of torture, bloodletting and the stake, a homogeneity of beliefs under one sole faith that seemed to purify itself exclusively by pain and death.
In 1478, a time not long before and somewhat less bleak, Lambert Palmart had published in that very a translation of the Bible into Catalan with the permission of the Inquisition and with the collaboration of religious Christians and Valencian intellectuals and the indispensable input of Jewish translators.
This Bible would soon become the object of a most fierce and ruthless Inquisitorial persecution. In 1482, the Holy Office ordered that all collaborators in the publication be punished and that all copies of the book be destroyed. Anyone who dared to challenge the Holy Office would end at the stake, like the book itself. Of the 600 copies that were printed, none survived to the present. A library in New York holds one last page from the Book of Revelations and the colophon of the work, which serve to prove the existence of this incunabulum. So much for the historical facts.
The novel begins with the flight of Daniel Vives, a Jewish convert who participated in the translation of the Valencian Bible and who possesses what is perhaps the last copy.
Vives takes refuge with the Bible in the home of some Jewish friends and is hidden in a secret synagogue built into the house. The fugitive will spend long weeks in hiding, frequently in absolute darkness.
The Grand Inquisitor of the Kingdom, Juan de Monasterio, uses all the means and methods available to him, including a deformed and murderous being without scruples called Castor, to discover where Vives and the Bible are hidden.
Pere Torrella, a converso doctor, tries to help Daniel Vives escape from the city, which is being closely watched the Monasterio’s guards and spies. The doctor takes advantage of an outbreak of plague—so common in European cities during the end of the late Middle Ages—to remove Vives from Valencia under the guise of yet another victim of the epidemic. So Vives manages to escape from the city, from Monasterio and from the terrible Castor, and undertakes a long flight on horseback which will lead him to Perpignan in France, a refuge for Jews fleeing the Crown of Aragon.
Because of his profession, Torrella knows all too many details about the private lives of his fellow citizens, and especially about those who secretly practice the Jwish faith. This knowledge would prove very dangerous if Torrella were to fall in the hands of Monasterio and suffer torture. He lives with this fear until he is called by an important noble, Francí de Castellví, to heal a son who has been felled by the pestilence.
Castellví is a high functionary of the city appointed by King Ferdinand and faces questions posed the power of the Inquisition. Grateful for having snatched his only son from the jaws of death, Castellví takes the doctor under his protection. Torrella thus joins a group of converses who have close links to the highest spheres of power and for a time is no longer a potential victim of the Inquisition.
Accompanying the royal entourage and the noble Castellvi to Persignan, Torrella reencounters Vives, who must leave the city and before doing so, charges the doctor with the custody of the Bible. Pere Torrella will return to Valencia hiding the precious volume…
The stories of Torrella, Monasterios, the heinous Castor and of so many other characters from persecuted communities and from the underbelly of the city are expertly interwoven in various plot lines. Thanks to the use of relatively brief chapters, in which the disparate yet connected stories mutually reinforce each other, the reader never loses track of the chain of events and is forced to read the novel almost at one sitting.
The evolution of the different plot lines is carefully crafted with often unpredictable endings, including even a displacement of the importance and centrality of characters and protagonists. This is not one sole and linear story, but several narratives with sometimes surprising twists and turns, which maintain the reader alert and generally do not disappoint.
We shall not divulge here the end of the novel, but will only point out that the The Pond of Fire takes its name from a verse from the Book of Revelation, the stagnum ignus, the pond which represents the flames of hell, the place where those who distance themselves from the truth are consigned.
The language and diction are correct and the clear style is elegant but not pretentious.
The atmosphere created and the explanations of sociological, cultural and religious referents help the reader not familiar with the history of the epoch to form a good idea of the customs and habits of Jews forcibly converted to Christianity and of their painful survival as individuals and as a community. It should be said that the historical exposition is moderate in both tone and quantity, allowing for a quick read. Some scholar may detect the presence of an anachronism here and there, but this would not in any way detract from the quality of the text.
The descriptions and dialogues are almost always realistic and plausible, although not necessarily noteworthy, as the narration of an omniscient author and the pacing which such narration imposes, more efficiently convey the sudden changes of setting and the surprises offered by the story lines.
The novel may not be classified perhaps of high or classic literature, but it is entirely entertaining and in keeping with the bases of the historical fiction genre. It skillfully creates a well-documented historical atmosphere which is interwoven with the most polished techniques of the classic adventure novel. This is a formula which has produced excellent results for the genre, with such best-sellers as The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco and The Cathedral of the Sea by Idelfonso Falcones.
The novel could be of interest for American readers, and not only for those who form part of the Jewish community, who may feel more identification with the victims of these historical persecutions. The characters are not presented in a Manichean manner, nor are they typecast in individual cases or as part of a group: the inquisitors are torturers, possessed of a blinding faith, but not all are portrayed equally bloody and insensitive; not all the Christians hate others who are different; not even the members of the Jewish live their faith in the same manner, some do so fervently, others try to forget their origins, and yet others coexist unscrupulously with the leaders of society, the same society that victimizes as a differentiated social group.
Some scenes may prove to be shocking without in any case being offensive. The scenes of violence and torture at the hands of the Inquisition or even those of the ravages of the plague in the city are always soberly recounted. Even those scenes which depict the Castor’s adventures in the city brothels are narrated with moderation.
Silvestre Vilaplana (Alcoi, 1969) received the Blai Bellver Prize for Narrative for The Pond of Fire in the city of Játiva in 2009. He is the author of several poetry collection and other novels which have enjoyed public success, among which Les cendres del cavaller (The Knight’s Ashes) is notable for being the first biographical novel about the life of Joanot Martorell (author of one of the most important chivalric novels of the 15th century, Tirant lo Blanc). This novel was awarded the City of Alzira Prize for a Novel and subsequently, the Serra d’Or Critical Prize, one of the most prestigious accolades given for works in the Catalan language.